Inside a mini mobile trailer, Catherine Wren collects vital signs and draws blood from a man at high risk for infection with the novel coronavirus. She then leads him outside for COVID-19 testing under a large white tent.
He tells her how worried he is about his son, who contracted COVID-19. “I try to be there and just listen,” says Wren. “My heart goes out to people.”
For the past 15 years, Wren has worked on clinical research studies for the Department of Medicine’s Division of General Internal Medicine at locations of community mental health programs across Maryland. Since April, however, she has reported to work at a remote parking lot at Green Spring Station that features two mobile trailers, two mobile offices with negative air pressure and a large tented area connecting them.
As Johns Hopkins’ first field-based clinical research site for COVID-19, the rapidly assembled facility stands as a testament to the institution’s all-hands-on-deck efforts to diagnose and treat the deadly disease.
“COVID just hit everybody so fast, and the disease was fairly unknown,” Wren says. “We were all pulled from different jobs and different areas to work on the COVID studies. It happened lickety-split.”
Wren was redeployed from coordinating a study on improving the physical health of people with serious mental illness to work for Stephanie Katz, a research nurse manager for COVID-19 outpatient clinical trials and nurse manager for the field-based clinical research unit. In addition to helping Katz set up the site, Wren now supports the various studies being conducted there.
Some seek to determine whether certain pharmaceuticals can prevent COVID-19 in health care workers and others who are at high risk for exposure. Other studies are looking at convalescent plasma — fluid with antibodies from someone who was infected by COVID-19 — to see if infusions of this blood component can protect someone else from contracting the virus or lessen the severity of the illness.
“This is new for all of us,” says Wren, noting that the volunteers bring different emotions and motivations. “Some people are eager to help, and some are afraid.”
A Steady Climb Since She Arrived
As she talks about her history at Johns Hopkins, Wren describes taking advantage of a series of opportunities that she never imagined.
When she accepted her first position at Johns Hopkins in 2004, Wren remembers feeling lost. “I was a single mother, I didn’t finish college. I needed direction and encouragement,” she says.
At the time, she was living in Essex, just outside Baltimore City. She had a varied resume — including managing her own upholstery shop and teaching computer skills at a psychiatric rehabilitation program — as well as a 13-year-old son to care for. Her goal was to find a stable job with health and retirement benefits.
Wren recalls the defining moment in her search. After kneeling on the floor to ask God for help, she heard the phone ring.
It was a staffing agency she hadn’t heard from in two years asking if she was available to take a temporary position as an administrative assistant in the Division of General Internal Medicine.
Filled with gratitude, she began work at the medical campus answering phone calls for Daniel Ford, now vice dean for clinical investigation and director of the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research.
Soon, Ford changed positions and recommended Wren to Gail Daumit, now Samsung Professor of Medicine and Department of Medicine vice chair for clinical and translational research. Daumit was conducting a pilot study on weight loss for people with serious mental illness and was seeking a permanent, full-time employee to help with recruitment and data collection.
The research required forming partnerships with mental health organizations, recruiting participants and obtaining their follow-up information. Almost immediately Wren’s work stood out, says Daumit: While the average data collection in populations with serious mental illness is between 50% and 70%, Wren obtained information from 95% of the research participants.
Then, in 2009, the research required blood work from participants, and Jeanne Charleston, a senior researcher in the division, suggested Wren earn her certification in phlebotomy. She was thrilled with the idea of offering more assistance.
“The way Catherine conducts herself, her work ethic and optimism are what allow the research to succeed,” says Daumit.
Determination has also helped Wren create the secure life she dreamed of.
About five years ago, Wren purchased her first home, a row house in Baltimore, using the Johns Hopkins Live Near Your Work program, which helps with a down payment. Her son recently graduated from college, which Wren’s Johns Hopkins benefits helped to pay for. Her father is living in her home as he recovers from heart surgery, and she hopes that her mother, who has dementia, will join them soon.
Wren has been taking online courses from Trevecca Nazarene University, the same college she attended more than 20 years ago in Nashville, Tennessee. She expects to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in December 2020. Wren says Daumit’s encouragement and understanding have helped her immensely, and she also credits Joseph Gennusa, a senior research program manager, for playing a vital role.
“Dr. Daumit has mentored me and given me a chance to make something out of my life. I was extremely fortunate to grow and learn under her, and it has been one of the greatest joys of my life,” says Wren. “As for Joe, I could not ask for a better supervisor.”
Additionally, Wren says the training she received to be an emergency medical technician and firefighter in Baltimore County not only strengthened her passion for helping others but also prepared her for redeployment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“She has had to be remarkably resourceful to make this happen in an isolated parking lot where we don’t typically do research,” says Katz. “I could not have done any of this without her. Some people thrive on not knowing what they will come across and are determined to make it work. That’s the kind of thing you need for field medicine. Catherine is perfect.”
“I like to work, but what I really like is good work — the kind of work where you help other people,” Wren says. “Helping other people gives me strength.”